Following a great lineage
I guess one of the main reasons for one to purchase the Xbox360 instead of some of the other offerings out there is the fact that Mass Effect is going to be released for it later this year. Bioware, the guys who introduced us to the classic Baldur's Gate series, a bit more recent Knights of the Old Republic and Neverwinter Nights as well as the regrettably less known Jade Empire, is coming back with a game that will forever alter the way we think about Action RPGs. And, as it is sci-fi, I simply had to take a look at it!
As usual in action sci-fi plots, the universe must be threatened by some unstoppable dark enemy for the main character to feel challenged enough to bother to take action. In the case of Mass Effect, it is revealed that, thousands of years ago, a machine race left the galaxy in ruins, having annihilated all civilized races. Apparently, the machines like to do this every 50'000 years and in 2183 AD it is discovered that the time for yet another annihilation is at hand.
At this point in time, Humanity has spread to many star systems in our home galaxy and met with the Citadel Council, a conglomerate of the intelligent star-faring species of the galaxy that, only twenty years before the story begins, have invited humans to send in their own ambassador to this grand gathering.
This is the stage at which Commander Shepard, controlled by the player, enters the story. Apparently, he's practically the only human that believes in the legends of the destructive machine race. Unfortunately, (s)he is just a lowly commander in the Human Alliance military with no powers to tell all the other humans, let alone the other intelligent races, what to do. On the other hand, (s)he is an elite Spectre agent (I wonder if his/her boss is called Blofeld and likes white cats...?) and commands a starship, Normandy, so all is not lost.
Aboard his/her starship, Commander Shepard is free to roam the galaxy (apparently free of the usual chain of command) with his/her team of specialists. In their search for the salvation of the intelligent races, the team will investigate several star systems and planets and abandoned space freighters. When investigating a planetary surface, the team uses an efficient looking MAKO Rover, which makes the exploration of ancient ruins and artefacts that much more fun. Of course, the rover also helps when the team meets some hostiles.
Getting into the role
Whereas the background story is pretty standard, the workings of Mass Effect when it comes to role-playing seems to really break some customs. When the game starts, everything still seems pretty standard: the player is free to customise Commander Shepard in his/her own image or select one of the pre-created variations of this character. Shepard-of-many-faces (and two possible sexes) is malleable as far as his/her appearance, skills and abilities and armor and weapons are concerned. The player can also select the other members in Commander Shepard's squad and customise the above-mentioned MAKO rover to his/her liking.
However, it is when the game starts that the real differences start to show. Instead of watching through endless scenes of pre-scripted dialogue every time Commander Shepard meets some character with something to say, the player will actually be a part of these conversations as they are conducted in real time and (s)he can choose his/her demeanor towards these other characters with each response that (s)he makes. These demeanors are marked by short phrases at the bottom of the screen that can be clicked on ? not the exact phrases that Commander Shepard will consequently be using, but they do carry over the general idea.
The other characters, in turn, will react in their characteristic manners, displaying their emotions in their voice as well as in their expressions. As the designers say, ?[e]very wrinkled brow and slight twist of the mouth is captured to infuse every interaction with a feeling of realism.? Although this seems great on the surface, let's just hope that this will not be overdone in order to make really sure that the player understands which emotion is currently ruling the NPC's behaviour. At worst, this feature could turn into a Disney animation where even animals have faces that react like humans' (or, even worse, George Lucas animation!).